Saturday, 24 November 2012

What everyone in Walsall needs to know

This blog is written by Linda Mason and therefore represents her views.

The first Green Space Strategy adopted by Walsall Council has led to the recognition of Walsall as a case study in best practice. It has been seen as a resounding success with Walsall Council and the Green Spaces team receiving  regional and national plaudits. This has led to the evolution of an expertise within the department that the council, despite having patted itself on the back because of all the public praise and acknowledgment, now seems to want to allow to go to waste. Is this the fault of Councillors  council officers or national government?

Clearly the proposed budget for 2013/14 is heavily influenced by the policies of national government and I will leave my thoughts on the coalition out of this blog but what council officers plan and the decisions that Councillors make based upon those plans are totally relevant to our campaign to save Walsall's Green Spaces and Countryside Services.

It became clear to those of us that attended the protest on Monday evening that the reaction of some of our local Councillors clearly indicated that they were not really aware of the budget proposals effects upon our Green Spaces. If this is the case then how aware are they of proposals in connection with Green Spaces strategy that have been 'hidden' or discarded in between working groups, scrutiny committees, cabinet and full council?

There are two areas for consideration: firstly the merger of Street Pride and Green Spaces and secondly, the current budget proposals of a £400K cut to the budget of what was Green Spaces.

Notes of a meeting between Jamie Morris, Mark Holden, myself and Roger Jones have been posted on the Facebook Group and also by Brownhills Bob here.  During this meeting it was stated that in August this year a decision was taken to merge Green Spaces and Street Pride. This flies in the face of recommendations previously made and I'll return to this point later but for now what you need to know is that Street Pride provides ground maintenance such as grass cutting, shrub bed maintenance and provision of floral bedding. Green Spaces, set up in 2006 is responsible for the management and development of public open spaces in Walsall. This includes the Park Ranger Service, Green Space Improvement Service, Countryside Services, Infrastructural Maintenance and the Urban Forestry Unit. Just from those descriptions you can see why the service provided by Green Spaces is specialised and expert.

Looking at the job cuts proposed it seems to me that your job is more at risk if you formerly worked for Green Spaces because even those jobs cuts proposed from Street Pride are more heavily weighted towards former Green Space roles. I'm not trying to set department against department here (there is evidence in the Green Spaces Strategy Working Group that there was poor communication between the two services and that there was also a lack of communication between Street Pride and Friends and User Groups) but as an outsider looking in on the current situation and  also in examining documents freely available on the council's website in the form of meeting minutes and reports by various committees, this merger is not a merger but a take over of Green Spaces by Street Pride in order to enable a fiefdom to be maintained at the expense of another department that receives national recognition and accolades. The job cuts being proposed are in the main, cuts in front line services formerly provided by Green Spaces and are not cuts in back room activities. Please do not think that I have a problem with the services provided by Street Pride; I don't. What I am trying to emphasise in this blog is that something, somewhere has gone very wrong and is against everything that is documented.

Paul Sheehan, Chief Executive of Walsall Council says in his remarks contained within Walsall Council's Corporate Plan for 2011/12 to 2014/15:
"Whilst change is both inevitable and desirable, what remains constant is the fact that we exist as an organisation only to service you, the residents of Walsall. All that we do should be for your benefit - to support you in living healthy lifestyles, to give increased access to better jobs and to make your neighbourhoods better places to live."

Where was this thought when it was decided that Street Pride and Green Spaces should merge and when deciding that it would be Ranger posts that would be dispensed with to meet budget cuts? Both Park and Countryside Rangers are essential if Paul Sheehan desires us to live a healthier lifestyle and in making our neighbourhoods good places to live. It's good to print fine words in glossy brochures but it seems that Walsall Council fails in ensuring that their officers keep these ideals in mind when doing their day to day work.

Returning to the Corporate Plan, the Vision is:
"Walsall will be a great place to live , work, invest, where
*there are a wide range of facilities for people to use and enjoy
*people consider the impact of what we do now on future generations
*growing up is as good as it can be
*people feel proud to live."

If we discard our Rangers, how are the four principles above going to be upheld? If we don't have our specialised Rangers to maintain and develop our green spaces what will future generations think of our legacy of wastelands where once there was green and as I've said before, will our children have spaces where there should be memories of trips to the swings and slides, pond dipping, bee hunting, newt spotting and family games of football and cricket?

Another comment in the plan states:
"Our Green Spaces will be well maintained and accessible so that people want to use them and value the time they spend there."

Walsall's Green Spaces are the most frequently used cultural and leisure facility so they need the best of staff. It's not enough to just pop anyone in there to provide a 'presence'. They need to be trained in many areas, not just in mowing the grass but
- in creating bonds and ties and maintaining them, with their local communities, tackling anti social behaviour and its perpetrators by actively engaging with disaffected youth,
- in health issues and how Green Spaces can help the community be fitter and healthier in mind and body and in ensuring that schemes such as the popular and beneficial WALK ON scheme continue and develop
- lastly but definitely not least, in developing and maintaining the huge ecological and environmental biodiversity of Walsall, explaining and educating communities and ensuring the legacy and heritage for future generations.

In February this year the Community Services Scrutiny and Performance Panel met, considered and approved the report and recommendations of the Future Greenspaces Strategy In Walsall, working group. It seems that since then there have been holes punched in this well written, well researched and well consulted report. The full report can be downloaded from the Council's web site but let's just take a few bits and pieces from that report and then consider whether or not we and our Councillors are really aware of what a properly researched and consulted report recommends and if those priorities identified should be abandoned in the name of a departmental merger and proposed budget cuts.

The working group recommended that the vision for Greenspaces 2012 to 2017 should be;
"Green Space in Walsall should be a proud public asset securing the environmental and ecological future of the borough for the benefit of the health and wellbeing of the whole community."
The case for that vision was set out in six priorities.

Priority 1 - Greenspace in Walsall should be enhanced and improved.
The working group believed that Walsall's Green Spaces were a proud public asset and that they were in a good place at that time due to the previous green spaces strategy. They proposed that Walsall Council should retain management of Greenspace and that a borough wide Country Park should be set up, radiating out from the Arboretum and eventually encompassing all borough wide green space, developing green corridors between parks and reserves and linking them all together.

I think this is the Country park that was reported upon recently by the Express and Star and which mystified many of us but what a brilliant and innovative idea. The problem is though, that if the proposed cuts go ahead, where are the staff and where is the expertise in making such a  proposal reality?

Within this priority was also the recommendation that  a new approach to grounds maintenance be developed by devising a new holistic and single strategy approach, involving low maintenance such as less grass cutting, more wild flower planting and meadows etc and that this approach be managed by Green Spaces. Yet now we have the merger and in effect the take over of all maintenance by Street Pride and it appears no consideration (see the notes of the meeting last Wednesday) has been given by officers of a revised maintenance structure that would in fact cut costs!

Priority 2 - All Green Space should be safe and free of crime and anti-social behaviour
Many of the posts going to Street Pride from Green Spaces that will remain if budget proposals are implemented will be renamed from Ranger type posts to environmental operatives. Rangers have over the last few years spent a lot of their time engaging with some of the people that are responsible for the majority of anti social behaviour and this approach has been most successful, various reports in the local press in just the last two weeks have given details of such success. The proposals are that some of these people will go and so their expertise and the trust that they have built up will go with them. At the meeting on Wednesday we were told that there would be more of a visible presence in green spaces. My question is will that presence have the expertise and experience to continue with programmes already started and will it also have what is needed to ensure that this priority can be fulfilled?

Priority 3 - Green space should be used to increase the health and well being of residents
There is much to comment upon here but I'll stick to education and the experiences that should be promoted to our local schools pointing out the history, geography, geology, habitats, biodiversity and so on of our local green spaces. Again if our Rangers have gone how can we fulfil this?

Priority 4 - Commercial opportunities should be sought in green spaces
Again, where are these considerations in the proposals and why has income generation been ignored? It is interesting that some of the proposals made by the working group are very similar to finance proposals made on the Facebook Group!

Priority 5 - Greater partnership working for the development of all green space should be pro-actively developed
Amongst others, Friends and User groups are recognised here but it is recommended that they are not viewed as cheap labour in times of austerity. This again appears to have been forgotten with murmurs of getting such groups to take over the locking and unlocking of green spaces with all the insurance and security implications that that entails. User and friends groups need Rangers! Without them there is no leadership and no guidance. An environmental operative would just not have the same expertise.

Priority 6 - Green Space should be used to create rich habitats and biodiversity
At the risk of repeating myself how can this be fulfilled without the appropriate expertise of Rangers?

From my experience at Wednesdays meeting and from my own research it is clear to me that recommendations are being hidden or ignored and that the corporate vision not even being paid lip service with the budget proposals for Green Spaces. Why?

My final point. The budget consultation is a glossy farce. Even now, when the public 'have your say' has finished, finer details to various proposals of cuts are still emerging. These details could not have been taken into account when people were having their say. Even what was available was difficult to access. Walsall Council, if you really want to consult, if you really want people to have their say, then lay it down straight, make it easily accessible instead of being hidden away on your web site.

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